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| || CAMP HANSEN, OKINAWA, Japan (Dec. 4, 2006) -- Marine stereotypes are abundant, and while Marines are often frustrated by misconceptions, there is one perception they readily welcome: The perception that Marines are good at drill. |
While most Marines would say that is a gross understatement, we decided to look into the health of drill in today's Corps. Okinawa Marine editor Sgt. Ethan E. Rocke set out to answer the questions: What happens to drill after boot camp? Is it thriving? Is it dying? Where does drill exist besides the depots?
Here, Rocke reports as both a journalist and as a sergeant of Marines with his own insight.
Watching over 50 or so sergeants, Gunnery Sgt. Yomen English looks for discrepancies. They're not hard to find. In fact, they're everywhere. That's why they call it practice.
English seems to perk up when he sees one of the sergeants effectively butchering a drill movement; It's sort of similar to the instinctive reaction he used to have when one of his recruits at Parris Island was doing something, anything wrong. The difference is English doesn't charge into a seemingly psychotic rage after his acute senses zero him in on a flanking movement called on the wrong foot, someone's sloppy execution of the sword manual, or a weak command voice. He doesn't need to. After all, this is not boot camp. This is Sergeants Course, and the Marines practicing drill have a good understanding of what drill is to the Corps. That's why they're here - to better themselves, to ensure they're doing their part as leaders to carry on the standards, the traditions. English knows this, and he is more than happy to step in and show them how - to fix them using his own example.
English teaches drill with a passion that is infectious. An Arkansas boy whose fit frame stands about 5-feet, 5-inches tall, he speaks with a quick southern drawl. His animated character compliments an unflinching confidence that you would expect from someone about a foot taller.
Out on the parade field, English is at home. The sergeants know it, and while many of them might not say it aloud, their goal today is to be like Gunny English. He awakens something in them. He reminds them who they are. Suddenly, the flanking movement goes smoothly, the sword snaps and pops, and the voice that was timid and uncertain now commands with confidence.
English left his impression on the sergeants of Class 3-06, as well as countless other Marine leaders he taught while serving as an instructor at the Staff Noncommissioned Officers Academy on Okinawa. He is not easily forgettable. I should know. I was in that class, and he was the chief instructor.
Although English left for a new assignment in Quantico, Va., just as I was beginning this story, I caught up with him over e-mail. He offered this assessment of what drill is to the Corps.
"Marines are famous for Battlefield performance," he said. "It is the most important characteristic of our Corps, and it comes from our desire to be the best regardless of our personal feelings. Correct drill requires this. It requires attention to detail. It requires practice. It means that an individual Marine will get in front of a group and, by his or her example, cause a group to respond to order."
Of course, there are thousands of Marines like English - the type of leaders who serve as a catalyst for the desire and commitment to not only keep drill alive, but to keep it strong, healthy and intrinsic to our nature as Marines.
I found these leaders all around me. They are the sergeants major who have been to the drill field and back again, the instructors and students at the Staff NCO Academies, the sergeants and corporals in the individual work sections, the lance corporals waiting in the wings to pick up the NCO sword and eventually pass it down to the next motivator eager to leave his mark on the Corps.
PART 1: STAFFS, "HATS"
I met Sgt. Maj. Ronnie L. Harrison in front of the Marine Corps Base Camp Butler Headquarters Building on a hot, humid Okinawa day in September. Dripping sweat from under his woodland utility cover, he seemed to barely notice the perspiration. The cover cast a shadow over his eyes, making them difficult to see, but there was no mistaking the focus in his face as he watched over the Marine formations assembled for a Base change of command practice.
Like so many other times in his career, Harrison had drawn drill master duty for the ceremony, a likely choice for a general's change of command given his background as a drill instructor and a 23-year Marine.
Those same credentials drew me to Harrison as I entertained the notion that maybe drill instructors are the true custodians of drill even after leaving the depots. But Harrison informed me that it's not as simple as that.
"A lot of Marines think only former drill instructors should be the duty experts," he said. "Shouldn't all staff NCOs know how to drill and lead drill? They have the resources. They have the manual. We shouldn't default and fall back on those who did tours on the drill field."
I asked other former DIs if they find themselves being called upon for collateral drill duties, and the answer was a resounding yes.
Staff Sgt. Edward Kretschmer, a faculty advisor at the Okinawa Staff NCO Academy's Sergeants Course and a former drill instructor, smiled when I asked him. His expression seemed to say, "Are you kidding?" But Kretschmer followed his smirk with a response that made me understand.
Having been stationed on Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego for two years, I've been around a lot of drill instructors, and initially I thought that, in the name of tact and professionalism, Kretschmer and the others I talked to were dismissing the suggestion that they were more aptly qualified to lead drill than their non-DI counterparts.
"We're a little more knowledgeable than those who haven't been to the drill field," Kretschmer said. "But just because I'm a prior drill instructor doesn't mean I can do it better than another staff NCO."
What stuck out in my mind, was the "it" Kretschmer was talking about. In other words, drill professionals like Kretschmer and Harrison recognize that the most important contribution a staff NCO can make to keep drill healthy is not necessarily the ability to perform it with the same precision, confidence and muscle memory that comes from three years "in the trenches" on a depot. It is simply to recognize and focus themselves on the vital role they play as senior leaders.
"The most important factor is staff NCOs have to ensure young leaders who will take our place know exactly why drill is important to our Corps," Harrison said. "We are keepers of tradition. If we don't do our part, if we don't show enthusiasm about drill, then we won't pass it on."
So Harrison and the other hats obliterated the theory that they shoulder the burden of keeping drill healthy, but not because the suggestion frustrated them. Their intimate understanding of what drill is to the Corps inspires their desire to see all Marine leaders treat it with the same care, the same commitment.
"There are no experts in drill," Harrison said. "We will always have drill and ceremonies. Drill is here to stay. It's not going anywhere, but if we don't keep emphasizing the importance of maintaining the standards, drill will suffer."
So after I painted a picture in my mind of DIs resembling some sort of Mighty Mouse character who pops his drill vitamins and saves the day when a ceremony comes around, the hats showed me some broader brush strokes, and I started on a new canvas.
PART 2: THE ACADEMY
In part 2 of our series on the health of drill in today's Corps, we focus on the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy's impact. Part 1 focused on the role that staff NCOs and former drill instructors play. Okinawa Marine editor Sgt. Ethan E. Rocke reports in this story as both a journalist and as a sergeant of Marines with his own insight.
In order to assess the health of drill, it is necessary to define what drill is to the Corps. All the Marines I asked had similar answers. Most of them used words like foundation and cornerstone. Most agreed that it's more than traditional close-order drill - military members in formation, marching, maneuvering and handling weapons with fluidity and rhythm.
Explaining Marine Corps drill to an outsider is a difficult task, but I'll try to illustrate it as best I know how. Drill is the metaphorical equivalent to the lightning bolt in one of the Corps' famous recruiting commercials - the one that transforms a crude gauntlet-running dragon slayer into a refined, disciplined and professional Marine warrior. Such is the case with drill. While it lacks the fantastical, instantaneous glamour of the lightning bolt, it transforms us in the same way and leaves within us the same electricity and desire to simply "be the best," as Gunny English put it.
It's no secret that being the best is a prevalent theme throughout the Marine Corps, and as Marines continually live up to the expectation of doing "more with less," we have to constantly focus ourselves on individual job proficiency while always remaining riflemen first.
Marine leaders especially must be capable of this careful balance, which is why the Marine Corps provides and stresses professional military education.
The Marine Corps Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy is where sergeants, staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants go for a recharge, a rejuvenating lightning strike so to speak. Not surprisingly, a large chunk of the six-week curriculums of Sergeants Course, Career Course and the Advanced Course is devoted to drill.
"Drill gives us the extra discipline to prepare and execute the task at hand," said Staff Sgt. Edward Kretschmer, a faculty advisor at the Okinawa Staff NCO Academy's Sergeants Course. "It builds and makes the individual Marine a better leader. Confidence and drill are directly tied to each other."
Gunnery Sgt. Toshia C. Sundermier, Staff NCO in charge of the Career Course on Okinawa, says the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the health of drill lies with senior leaders, which is why the academy curriculum focuses a great deal of attention on it.
"It's from the top down," Sundermier said. "If the senior leadership isn't making it happen and emphasizing it, then the junior leaders aren't going to do it."
The SNCO Academy is the most obvious example of such a top down emphasis. The academy curriculum is set by Headquarters Marine Corps, which means those at the very top of the Corps' chain of command have made drill proficiency a priority for Marine leaders.
The Marine Corps places a lot of faith in the SNCO Academy's role as a place where the drill tradition is nurtured, but the academy is essentially a simple investment in capable, individual leaders, and those leaders are trusted with a promise to pass on the knowledge.
"The academy curriculum is geared perfectly to set up leaders, but that's all we can do," said Gunnery Sgt. Ceylon Williams, the chief instructor for Okinawa's Career Course. "It's up to the individual. We're here to make them better leaders and send them out to their units with the knowledge to make others around them better."
Sundermier echoed Williams' assessment.
"It's not only the SNCO Academy's responsibility," she said. "We only have them for six weeks. It's up to the individuals to take what they learn and apply it at their units."
In other words, leaders can walk away from the Academy with a newly electrified NCO sword and the power to wield lightning bolts of their own. But what makes a real difference in ensuring drill's health is whether or not they actually take the sword out of the scabbard and aim its electricity at the Marines around them.
PART 3: MOTIVATORS
In part 3 of our series on the health of drill in today's Corps, we focus on the role that sergeants and below play. Part 2 focused on the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy's impact. Okinawa Marine editor Sgt. Ethan E. Rocke reports in this story as both a journalist and as a sergeant of Marines with his own insight.
In 1985, young Marines with C Company, 1st Landing Support Battalion, 1st Force Service Support Group, marched everywhere - to the chow hall, to the armory, from point A to point B; the Marines knew the drill: Fall in, right face, forward march, left-right-left.
That's the way Sgt. Maj. Ronnie L. Harrison remembers it. He was a young lance corporal then, the kind of motivator whose zeal and enthusiasm stands out, the kind of kid others look at and think "He's going to be a sergeant major someday." When the call came for a Marine to march an element, Lance Cpl. Harrison was eager to volunteer.
"I remembered my drill instructors calling cadence, and I got out there and called left right left," Harrison said.
It's not surprising that Harrison took up where his drill instructors left off and made his way full circle to mold his own generation of motivators, leaving his cadence to echo in their minds and remind them of that foundation on which the Corps stands.
For some that echoing reminder grows fainter with time and distance from the depot. For others it echoes loud until the day comes for them to step in front of a formation and increase the volume. The latter are the motivators - the sergeants and below who maintain within themselves that lightning bolt electricity that defines the Corps' character.
Staff Sgt. Edward Kretschmer, a faculty advisor at the Okinawa Staff NCO Academy's Sergeants Course, helped define how those motivators impact drill today.
"Marines can show how proud they are by the way they conduct drill because they know it sets us apart from the rest of the services," Kretschmer said. "Part of that pride is just the individual's desire to continue to carry on the proud traditions of the Marine Corps. Drill gives junior Marines the opportunity to be a part of our history."
But where are the opportunities to drill? There are plenty of units, usually ground units such as infantry or artillery companies, that use drill on a daily basis - in formations or simply marching from point A to point B as Harrison put it.
But what about the Marines not attached to those units? For them it often becomes necessary to set time aside for drill.
Sgt. Carl Ray, a recent Sergeants Course graduate, has spent much of his Marine career assigned to such units, but he says the emphasis on drill is there when Marines ensure it.
"We used to drill a lot at Beaufort," he said about his last duty station. "We had training once a month to practice drill. We covered everything - guidon, color guard, sword manual."
That type of focus on drill is what instructors at the Staff NCO Academy constantly emphasize, and all the instructors I spoke to agreed that young Marines crave that focus.
"If you empower Marines with knowledge, they like to use it," said Gunnery Sgt. Toshia C. Sundermier, Staff NCO in charge of the Career Course on Okinawa, "They like to show you that they're good at drill. There's always a motivated sergeant who wants to do drill because he's good at it. We need them to impress that same desire and ability on others."
Harrison, who runs the Corporals Course on MCAS Futenma, made a similar observation of the young motivators whose development he oversees.
"NCOs are like kids in a candy store when they have that NCO sword," he said. "They want to show you they are competent and capable of ensuring the standards that have been passed down continue to be met."
The motivators I found during this report showed me that they are competent, capable and focused on amplifying the echoing cadence that starts for every Marine at boot camp.
"If you lose sight of drill, you're breaking down the cornerstone of the Marine Corps," said Sgt. David Barthel, another recent Sergeants Course graduate. "You lose discipline, morale, standards, instant obedience to orders."
Over the 231-year history of the United States Marine Corps, Marines have repeatedly distinguished themselves as the world's finest fighting force. Some may say that title is arguable, but those people have never been Marines. What we who wear the uniform are so acutely aware of is that there has never been an organization more in tune with its own sense of unity and cohesion, its belief that strength is fortified by a tradition of consistency and repetition, its recognition that superior, sometimes-impossible standards consistently produce extraordinary results.
This awareness does not come in an overnight awakening. It is, like so many other things in the Marine Corps, drilled into us. It is drill that makes us Marines. As sure as Marines will achieve victory whenever we are called to battle, we will use drill as a fundamental precept upon which all our standards of discipline and instant obedience to orders will stand.
Drill is alive and well outside the gates of the depots. Whether we recognize it or not, it is ingrained in every fiber of our makeup, and it is thriving.
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